After Jonathan Gustavo finished his classes for the summer at a university in California he headed to El Paso to visit his family.
When he got off the bus at the Downtown station on April 24, he saw a large number of people gathering around Sacred Heart Church. Instead of going home he decided to stick around and help the hundreds of migrants who have come to the border to wait for the end of Title 42.
“I’ve been out here for a week fighting and suffering with them,” he said Monday outside of Sacred Heart. “I’m not any more or any less than them. I eat with them and sleep on the floor with them.”
Since mid-April the number of migrants sleeping outside Sacred Heart Church and Opportunity Center for the Homeless have been increasing on a daily basis. The city’s Office of Emergency Management, in a briefing, said the numbers now hover around 3,000.
The number is expected to grow on Thursday when Title 42 ends at 9:59 p.m., clearing the way for up to 15,000 migrants in the area to seek asylum in El Paso before heading to their final destination elsewhere.
Until then, the migrants wait.
Red Cross and regular blankets serve as makeshift tents in the alley behind Sacred Heart where hundreds and hundreds of migrants who left their home countries a month ago are living. The migrants are fleeing starvation, war, or political persecution..
Gustavo helps migrants fill out documents, prints out paperwork at a local library, gives them rides to the airport or bus stations, and lets them use his phone to communicate with their loved ones.
“I’m happy here. I wake up with joy,” he said. “Some of these people lost everything when they crossed. My family went through this as well. My dad was an illegal immigrant. I used to come to this church and pray inside. I used to cry and ask God for forgiveness. Who would’ve known that … God brought me back to this church to help others.”
When school starts in August, Gustavo will be ready to return to school and hopes that things will settle in El Paso’s streets by then.
City officials over the weekend closed down Father Rahm, the street next to the church and suspended the streetcar services in the Downtown area, city officials announced in a news release. Four police officers, with their faces covered, stood across the street from the church Monday as several patrol cars drove around.
By Monday afternoon, migrants began to spill over to the nearby streets where local residents reside. An older couple, angry that a migrant couple was shielding themselves from the heat by tying blankets to a fence that would give them access to their apartment, yelled expletives at them. The couple who did not want to be identified simply removed their blankets to let them through and set up in another area while apologizing for being in the way.
Around the corner, Jose Burciaga worked on the air-conditioner for his residence at the same apartment building. He has lived there for more than five years and said this is the first time he’s seen migrants camp outside his building.
“They’re here out of necessity and lack of attention towards them,” he said in Spanish. “We try to help with what we can. We have given them some water, food, or blankets.”
Burciaga said flexibility from area residents was needed to deal with the number of migrants around the building since their stay should be only temporary.
“Where else are they going to go,” he said. “Sometimes they sit outside and smoke marijuana. The other day the smell was too harsh. I went out and talked to them and told them to be careful. They’re already in the U.S. and don’t need to get in trouble for drugs. They’ve been through much suffering and hardship to be caught high or with drugs and be sent back.”
Back at the alley, two men on different sides of another street were cutting hair to help fund their trip to their next destination. Another migrant was seen selling packs of cigarettes as a part of an improvised economy to survive while they prepare for the next step of their journey. None of the entrepreneurs wanted to identify themselves or discuss their money-making activities.
About a mile from the church at the Opportunity Center for the Homeless on Myrtle Avenue, a similar scene developed in the alley behind the shelter and a piece of land adjacent where migrants have slept on the streets.
Aracely Lazcano, communication director for the center, said the city allowed the migrants to be out there and provided temporary restrooms and continued police presence to ensure the safety of the men, women, and children there.
“The number of people here varies daily,” she said. “Once it gets dark, we’ve had up to 750 people out there. Many of them are culturally afraid of the police, but the police are just there to keep order and keep them safe.”
The shelter can hold up to 200 people inside, who sleep on mats on the floor to accommodate the large numbers. Migrants also have access to showers, clothing, food, a computer room, and access to the internet.
Lazcano said that on April 25, the shelter received the first batch of about 70 migrants.
“Every day, that number continues to grow exponentially,” she said.
This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.